It seemed like a simple plan: The City of Miami, long criticized for neglecting its green spaces, embarked on a badly needed culling and extensive replanting of the thick but ragged shade-tree canopy that defines the median of Brickell Avenues tony residential section.
City officials consulted with a Brickell residents group for more than a year, hired a top-drawer landscape design and engineering firm, and budgeted nearly $1 million to buy and plant a diverse range of 237 mature shade trees and palms. They identified sick, hazardous or damaged trees for removal and tagged them with notices, and won city commission approval to spend the money.
But in Miami, nothings that simple.
When crews began cutting down some of the 70 trees which consulting arborists had concluded could not be saved or were causing problems, some residents freaked out. They organized daily protests and a petition drive and launched a Facebook page to stop what they labeled a crime and a tree massacre.
WPLG Local 10 fanned the flames when it aired a report on a Friday evening that showed lots of chainsawing, mentioned the plan only in passing and interviewed no city officials on camera. When City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, a key backer of the plan, showed up at a protest, he says he was shoved and spit on by one woman. His aide and the consultants were interrupted by shouts when they tried to explain the plan at a public meeting.
The Tree Partiers got what they wanted.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who lives in Brickell and has at times been at political odds with Sarnoff, called Gus Pego, district secretary for the Florida Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the Brickell roadway.
Pego then effectively shut down the city project after 40 trees had already been chopped down, saying the city needs an FDOT permit for the project.
On their Facebook page, tree protesters celebrated: Victory! one posted. We roasted them!!!!!! wrote another after the meeting at which city and project officials were excoriated.
But leaders of the Brickell Homeowners Association, whose long-frustrated demands that the city improve the neglected median had finally prompted the beautification project, say theyre baffled and disappointed. The association and city officials say meetings were open, and the association publicized the project in its newsletter, which was distributed widely, and on its website.
Its been discussed, honestly, for almost two years, said association spokeswoman Natalie Brown, who added that her group, which represents 40 buildings and 25 businesses along the avenue, worked closely on the plans with planners and consultants. Its always been something that residents have asked for and advocated for. This is the first time weve seen the will by the city to do something that could be really great.
City administrators say they have submitted their plans to FDOT, and are willing to meet again with residents and protesters.
Sarnoff would like to replant one block as planned, a tactic he believes would prove its advantages.
At bottom, the dispute seems to come down to different views of how the median should be designed: the present semi-rustic look, or a more groomed, garden-style layout.